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The Arts

DeWalt to perform live musical score to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’

Latchis Arts and local musician and composer Dan DeWalt present a screening of the 1936 film, “Modern Times,” directed by Charlie Chaplin. The silent film will have live musical accompaniment by DeWalt. The event is on Thursday, Sept. 1, at the Latchis Theatre at 50 Main St., Brattleboro, and begins at 7 p.m. Admission is by donation.

BRATTLEBORO—The Latchis Theatre is showing Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, “Modern Times,” on Thursday, Sept. 1.

Unlike in most screenings of this silent movie, however, the accompanying music will come not from the film’s soundtrack but from local musician Dan DeWalt’s piano, as he provides a live, part-composed, part-improvised score.

DeWalt is a composer and multi-instrumentalist, playing in various bands, such as Simba and the Creacion Latin Big Band, and in various regional musical theater productions.

Considered by the American Film Institute to be one of the 100 greatest American films, “Modern Times” is a “rambunctious comedy” with “the spirit of a good vaudeville show,” according to film critic Pauline Kael. Chaplin plays an assembly-line worker who becomes part of the machinery — or at least that’s the factory-owner’s intention.

“Modern Times” marks the first time Chaplin’s voice is heard in one of his films, albeit during a singing performance, not in dialogue.

Not to spoil the movie for those seeing it for the first time, The Commons will reveal only this much: DeWalt said he will stop playing during Chaplin’s singing scene and the ‘feeding machine’ and ‘stomach gurgling’ scenes. “We turn the sound up [in the projection room] so people can hear,” those parts, DeWalt said.

The Latchis Arts news release describes DeWalt’s score as “derived entirely from an aesthetic reaction to the story line... It may be ‘jazzy,’ ‘dissonant, ‘impressionistic’ or heavily rhythmic at times, but it cannot be categorized as any particular type of musical score.”

In choosing “Modern Times,” DeWalt said he “checked out a few movies... but as soon as I saw a couple of excerpts from this film, I said, ’[Chaplin is] really talking about stuff that matters: the inhumanity of the workplace, drugs, poverty, and police brutality,’” DeWalt said. “But it’s a love story and a comedy at the same time.”

“It’s a highly emotional, powerful movie. [Chaplin] uses comedy to skewer these things,” DeWalt said.

“It’s ironic and disturbing [how] there’s nothing in this movie that’s outdated. The grim realities are just as grim,” now as they were in the 1930s, DeWalt said. “We haven’t really progressed that much.”

This is the first movie DeWalt has live-scored on his own, but he once provided the music for a silent Buster Keaton film with Peter Blanchette’s band. DeWalt enjoyed the experience and thought it would be fun to do it again.

In a conversation with one of the Williamsville Hall organizers, the idea gained traction and DeWalt debuted his “Modern Times” show there and performed it again at Valley Cares senior housing in Townshend.

In preparing to compose the non-improvised pieces he plays along with the film, DeWalt said he watched the movie a few times with the sound turned down, “to not be influenced by the soundtrack.”

To prepare for the improvised parts, DeWalt said he often sits at his piano and “practices being spontaneous.”

Because “there are plenty of places in the film where I’m improvising,” DeWalt noted every performance is unique. Thus, attendees who saw his live-scoring of the film at the Williamsville Hall or Valley Cares will have a somewhat different experience at The Latchis.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #372 (Wednesday, August 31, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.

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